Six months ago, southwest Cameroon plunged into violence as English-speaking separatists fought troops and police ordered in by the country’s francophone-majority government.
University of Buea students train for the Academic games, South-West Region of Cameroon, on April 27, 2018.
A social crisis that began in November 2016 has turned into armed conflict since October 2017. Several small armed groups demand the independence of the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon, bordering Nigeria. / AFP PHOTO /
The pathway leading to that trauma can be traced in part to events nearly a quarter of a century ago at the University of Buea, in the capital of the country’s Southwest Region.
In 1995, students Cho Ayaba and Ebenezer Akwanga set up a pro-independence association that claimed violence was the only way to achieve a separate state for Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions.
Their organisation was banned, but their activism had a resounding impact on events.
At Cameroon’s biggest English-speaking university, they nurtured the separatist culture, focussed resentment on perceived discrimination and later became leaders of the armed insurgency.
Other alumni of the university include Mark Bareta, an influential pro-separatist propagandist, and Tanku Ivo Tapang, a former journalist who lives in the United States.
“At the University of Buea, we think,” said a student preparing his master’s degree who asked not to be named. “We can look to our history and when we do, we see that things are not good.”
Marginalisation “you can see everywhere, in every trade and profession,” said another graduate student, who used John as a fake name.
A professor of political science, again anonymous, said the many anglophone grievances were sharpened by the failure of the central government in Yaounde to respect a 1961 referendum on self-determination.
Cameroon was once a German colony that after World War I was divided between Britain and France.
In 1960, the French colony gained independence, becoming Cameroon, and the following year, the British-ruled Southern Cameroons was amalgamated into it.
Anglophone activists, though, complain this was a forced marriage.
The insurgency began in 2016, when activists in the anglophone minority, comprising about a fifth of the country’s population of 22 million, stepped up a campaign for greater autonomy.
President Paul Biya rejected their demands, prompting radicals to make a full-blown but symbolic declaration of independence last October 1.
Separatists began attacking police and soldiers and symbols of state power, sparking a violent crackdown. Scores have been killed on both sides — the full toll remains unclear — and tens of thousands have fled their homes.
– Trigger –
Outside the world’s view, events at the university in 2016 played a key part in the mechanism of escalation.
In late November 2016, a peaceful march to demand payment of a bonus promised by Biya along with the lifting of a 2012 ban on a student union met with a brutal response from authorities.
“For the first time in the university’s history, the police came on to the campus in 2016. Girls were raped, others humiliated and young people arrested in their lodgings,” “John” said.
Images of the crackdown rapidly went viral.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) thinktank holds that the sight of police excesses on social media helped “push the population to the end of their tether” and opened the “Pandora’s box of the anglophone problem”.
It was the second violent episode in a decade at the 12,000-student campus.
In 2006, the creation of a department of medicine in Buea led to riots that claimed two lives and left several wounded.
Initially, only anglophones were allowed to take entrance exams to study in the new department.
The central government rejected this on the grounds of “national unity” and enforced admittance of francophones, sparking a revolt.
– ‘Authoritarian’ –
Today, the university’s management has a dour reputation, say critics.
It exercises “authoritarian rule rather than democratic governance, to ensure political control and loyalty” to Yaounde, according to a study in 2009 by Piet Konings, a Dutch researcher at the University of Leiden.
“At the university, like everywhere in Buea, many responsible jobs are held by francophones, who are most often members of the ruling party,” the political science professor told AFP, adding that he “felt a lot of frustration among my anglophone students”.
A student said that when it came to political issues, “we don’t discuss them in class, because our professors can be francophone, but among ourselves we still talk”.
“For a long time, we knew how to keep this frustration to ourselves,” said ‘John’.
“But with the events of 2006 and those of 2016, people are saying ‘enough is enough’. There’s going be a revolution at UB (the university) and in anglophone Cameroon.”
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